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Aoife Feeney - Studying at UCD through DARE

Aoife Feeney, originally from Co. Longford and now based in Dublin, is the Policy Officer for Agriculture, Nature and Food Quality for the Netherlands Embassy in Dublin. Aoife has a BAgrSc in Animal Science and an MSc in Agriculture Extension and Innovation.  

Aoife’s role includes public diplomacy and bi-lateral cooperation in trade and policy between the Netherlands and Ireland. Prior to this position, Aoife was the Farm Sustainability Manager for Carbery group in West Cork, working with farmers, the business, and the wider dairy industry to become more sustainable. Her first role after finishing college in UCD was as Team Leader and Agricultural Adviser in the Farm Relief Services and Teagasc working on Agri-environmental and nitrates schemes. Aoife was elected to the Irish Grassland Association council in 2021 for a 12-month term, and at the same time was awarded a 2022 Nuffield Ireland Scholarship focused on identifying methods to encourage farmers to prioritise actions for water quality. 

We asked Aoife all about her journey to and through UCD, her achievements to date and about her current role in the Netherlands Embassy in Dublin. 

  • What led you to study Agriculture? 

Growing up, I always had a huge love of animals and nature. While I didn’t grow up on a farm myself, I spent some time on my grandparents’ beef farm in North Roscommon, now run by my cousins. When asked the question ‘What will you be when you grow up?’ I always responded with ‘a Vet’ and this remained the case right up until my mid-teens. I was sure I would go on to study veterinary medicine. However, it was not to be. I grew up with rheumatoid arthritis and while I was in remission for a number of years, it returned just before I turned 16. While it didn’t have a negative impact on me, I re-evaluated my choices and also didn’t want to put myself under pressure. Veterinary was still my number 1 choice, but I was delighted when I was offered a place in Animal Science and as a DARE student, and I’ve never looked back. 

  • What advice would you give to someone considering studying Agriculture? 

If you’re thinking about it and have an interest in science, animals, nature and food, just go for it. Agriculture is such a broad degree that you will not be limited in your choices post-studying. I always thought I would end up working in the animal science industry having chosen this as my major, but little did I know where the journey would take me, and now I have a hand in every sector across the industry. It really does offer so many options from business development to agri advisory and beyond, and working in Ireland’s largest and oldest indigenous industry is something to be proud of and offers huge opportunities. I would also say that the DARE scheme in UCD was a fantastic support to me in the school of agriculture and food science. Whatever your disability, the support not just from the DARE office but also from the lecturers as a DARE student is phenomenal and made studying agriculture in UCD even more enjoyable as it took away some worries for me and meant I could focus on my studies without worrying about my health impacting things. 

  • What is your fondest memory from your time at UCD? 

Oh that is a tough one to answer. I have so many, but I think it has to be Ag Week in our final year. We were such a tight knit group and had been through tough times too, so we really made the most of that week and that year and had so much fun whilst raising money for a charity close to our hearts. I think it was a proud moment for the whole year. 

  • What is the proudest moment of your career to date? 

Definitely being awarded a Nuffield Scholarship. I remember Bill O’Keefe (Saturn Farms) coming in to talk to us in Karina Pierce’s dairy lecture in final year (I still have the notes I took from this lecture) discussing all the different career opportunities and Nuffield, and I remember thinking oh wow this guy is so successful - imagine getting a scholarship like that. Never in my wildest dreams did I think it would happen to me. Only for a farmer in West Cork encouraging me to apply I don’t think I would have done it. It also came at a time in my life where I needed something to challenge me and drive me on after the death of my Father and it has opened so many doors and created so many new friendships, I am forever grateful for this opportunity. 

  • What have been the most challenging aspects of your career?

While it might seem I’m successful, it wasn’t out of luck or lack of hard work or failure. I really enjoyed college, but I also had some really difficult times in UCD including the passing of some friends and juggling health issues, and as a result I didn’t do as well as I’d hoped - I even had to repeat some exams delaying my graduation. I definitely felt I was on a backfoot starting out in my career when jobs were a lot less plentiful compared to now, so I think the very start of it was a big challenge for me, especially not coming from a farming background. However, I worked hard to learn as much as I could and proved myself in the first two years of my career and I really believe it has stood to me to this day. I’ve always had the mindset that failures help you to grow and be better and I truly believe that is the case although at the time it felt like I would never be successful.  

  • Describe your typical work day at the Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands.

No two days are the same. My role is a new position here in the Dutch embassy in Dublin, so for the first year a lot of it was figuring things out and trying to make it known in the Netherlands that I existed in Dublin and was available for questions/queries in relation to Agriculture, Food and Nature. I work along with the Agricultural Counsellor who is based in London, so my team is there too. I deal with trade requests from time to time but typically my role involves analysing the latest policies across the industry. Everything from climate action plans to fisheries and food packaging to nitrates regulations. I recently held my first mission which was an Agri Tech Fact Finding Mission to Ireland for Dutch Agri-Tech companies and hope to build on this later this year. It really is a fantastic role that allows me to explore every sector and learn something new every single day. I visit The Hague once a year learning from my European and global counterparts and colleagues in the Ministry of Agriculture Nature and Food Quality on the latest Dutch policy developments, so I am kept up to speed in both countries. It is really interesting to learn how agriculture is progressing in other countries and to be able to create links and share knowledge between two countries is very satisfying. While it can be daunting to have to know a little bit about a lot rather than a lot about a little, it certainly broadens your network and opens your mind to new ideas. 

  • In your career and/or personal life, who have been the most inspiring or helpful mentors/advisors that you’ve had to date?

In my personal life my family have by far been the biggest influence. My late Father Alec and my Mother Kathleen were both huge believers and advocates for education despite neither of them attending university. Seeing how hard they worked over the years and always putting myself and my four siblings first to make sure we had the opportunities they wanted for us was inspiring. They encouraged us to do what we wanted to and not to be afraid of failure or ambition but never forced us down any particular path. I’m fortunate to be the youngest of five children and watching my older siblings navigate life and their successes and failures also taught me a lot and I was really lucky to have them all to call on for advice and still do despite all four of them living abroad. 

Karina Pierce played a very big role in mentoring me over the years (whether she knows it or not) and I am extremely grateful that she was also my Nuffield mentor for the last two years. If you said to me in 2014 that I would have a friend in one of my professors I’d have raised an eyebrow but I am extremely grateful to Karina for her support, advice and push when I needed it.
And last but not least, Rebecca O’Sullivan, who has been a wonderful friend to me since our days in UCD and is always an inspiration to me. I owe a lot to her for her support over the years especially when I felt like I was going to fail through my degree at one point. The friends you make in college are some of the best you’ll have for life and I’m grateful to each and everyone of them for their support. 

  • Have you always been interested in agricultural policy and sustainability? 

Not exactly. I never really knew where my career would go or where my interests lay and I kind of fell into sustainability before it was even being talked about. Having worked on environmental schemes over the years, my interest in policy development grew and then my role with Carbery sparked a huge interest in sustainability and I’ve never looked back. I certainly didn’t think I would be working in policy now looking back at my younger self in UCD. I always thought I’d end up in the animal health industry, but I love what I’m doing and definitely see a future in policy but my love for sustainability is still there too. 

  • How did your studies at UCD support or encourage that interest?

Since I had no background in agriculture, my undergraduate degree from UCD in animal science was really the foundation of everything to kick start my career. I felt like I knew absolutely nothing, but when I started to put my learnings into practice it was like a moment of clarity where everything clicked, and I got really excited for my career ahead. Putting the theory into practice really cemented what I had learned in my degree and I know I couldn’t have been as successful without that foundation.  I often think back to my policy lectures which I wasn’t the biggest fan of but in hindsight I realise now it is because I am a practical thinker and didnt fully understand them until I was putting it into practice. Now I listen to podcasts about policy! In the moment, I thought I’d never use that information and now it’s the basis of my job. I went on to study my Masters in Agricultural Extension and Innovation with UCD which had a huge impact in my dealings with farmers, and I would really recommend that course to anyone working in advisory or extension services. However, I was met with big challenges throughout all of my studies in UCD on a personal level that made it difficult for me, but I wouldn’t change it and I think it’s just made me stronger and more resilient. 

  1. What do you do to relax? Tell us a bit about your current life, family and hobbies.

Relaxing is not something I do easily. For the last two years, a lot of my free time has been taken up with Nuffield, so I’ve been living and breathing all things agriculture and travel, and I’m really looking forward to having some time back for myself. I live in Dublin and have friends dotted all over the country, so I love to head off for weekends visiting them. My four older siblings all live abroad so unfortunately I don’t get to see them all that often, but it makes for some great travel destinations. I often go to Longford to visit my Mum and very importantly my dogs, and still visit the farm of my grandparents where my aunt lives and her sons run the farm. It’s so nice to see it evolve over the years. I love arts and crafts and to draw, mostly portraits with charcoal and pencil so I’m very much looking forward to getting back to that in my spare time now that I almost have it back. I also love swimming and the outdoors and a nice walk with good music is my ideal way of unwinding. 

  • What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given? 

My dad once told me “the harder you work, the luckier you get” and I think it is a nice way of saying you make your own luck and how you handle your challenges will determine your future. I took the approach that there was a lesson in everything even if you don’t know what it is at the time and I still take that approach today and if you don’t try you’ll never know! 

UCD School of Agriculture and Food Science

Agriculture and Food Science Centre, University College Dublin, Belfield, Dublin 4, Ireland.
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